Thursday, February 23, 2012

Online Art Ventures: The Good, the Bad, and the Promising

While there are seemingly innumerable Web sites popping up and claiming to cater to the art world — which we as the art media, at least, embrace immediately because we like things that are young, cool, and aesthetically pleasing (as most of these sites are) — few of these new ventures have actually established a real business. What, if anything, will come of art's current love affair with e-commerce remains to be seen.
I wouldn't call it a "love affair" as much as an "I don't want to be the last one to sign up for the next big thing, and well, let's face it, with the economy at best still sputtering along, I'm willing to try anything, affair."

Personally, I'm more than a little interested in the potential of an online presence to help in the marketing of an art gallery...the potential to reach a wider audience seems significant enough for a little experimentation. And, I've had the opportunity to try out and/or at least discuss the business models with the people behind most of these online fine art commerce websites over the past few years. In doing so, though, I've noticed a few trends (what, in my less charitable moments, I might call "flaws") in their collective thinking. I'd like to share my thoughts about those "trends" here with an eye toward perhaps, again, expanding a dialog that might eventually erase much of the skepticism about the value of online efforts to expand a gallery's reach and help sell more art, as well as steer those pouring so much money and effort into building them toward a service galleries would be more willing to pay for.

Here are some of the trends in the current online business models I'm familiar with that I think are holding them back:

Trend one is to underestimate the value of the social aspect of buying art. From 2002 through 2007, the contemporary art world (press and galleries combined) went to great lengths to train the current generation of collectors to buy at those carnivals of conspicuous consumption: the art fairs. Holding back choice works to debut them at the fairs, helping prized collectors sneak into fairs early, celebrating big purchases at the fairs in articles that continue to emphasize dollar amounts over visuals...combined, these efforts helped make purchases at the fair more glamorous (where friends would exchange stories of their daily acquisitions over cocktails or dinner later), and in doing so elevated the social component of collecting. None of the online efforts so far has managed to replicate or accommodate what became "just part of the experience" (and a very enjoyable part) for many collectors.

Trend two is to overestimate the "intimidation factor." Many of the art e-commerce entrepreneurs I've spoken with begin with a vision of addressing the discomfort new collectors feel because of how cold and heartless the staff are at galleries. Insulted by the gallerina's haughty reluctance to warmly engage them, this class of people, anxious to spend their disposable income, say "phooey" to the art world and take up other pursuits instead. Or at least that's the mythology. Many of the incipient dotcom crusaders I've talked to have concluded that if they can only help would-be collectors browse and inquire about artwork anonymously online, building their confidence, then they would be more willing to make actual purchases, the art market would expand, and everyone would be happier.

The problem with this vision is that there's a much, much easier way for would-be collectors to gain confidence in the cold, heartless art world: just make your first purchase. Upon that very moment, the gallery's iceberg facade will immediately crumble, and upon each visit afterward the directors/ dealers will rush out to warmly greet you and shower you with advice on your next purchase, the gallerinas will offer you playful banter, if not expensive coffee, and you'll never feel more welcome or confident anywhere in your life. It's a much faster way toward building a significant and rewarding collection than unguided anonymous purchases.

The lesson for the online entrepreneurs is to understand that anonymity is NOT the key here. Helping to connect the collector with the dealer, facilitating that personal relationship, is the key. At least if you expect the galleries to embrace (read: pay for) your efforts.

Trend three is to waste a lot of your time, and that of the galleries you're counting on being clients, selling them your vision rather than (and this is Business 101) listening to their needs. No matter what approach you're taking, it will most likely involve many hours of the gallery staff's time, so it had better address what the gallery needs. I spend nearly every waking hour thinking about what my gallery needs. Believe me when I say you're not very likely to know better than I do what that is. So please spare me the "It's eBay meets Basel" type sales pitches. If I needed that, it would most likely exist already.

Trend four is to create a rigid information architecture and/or metadata tags and requirements such that all the data we've spent hours entering into our own system (or the half dozen other online systems we were talked into trying) are non-transferable, meaning each time we have to start from scratch and provide or enter the data the way YOU want it. I don't have the patience for that any more. Few of the efforts we've tried so far have paid us anything, let alone paid us back for the hours we've spent customizing our images and data to have a presence on them.

To really take advantage of the digital age, the art industry needs a standard data format (like ONIX provides for the publishing industry) so that our data is sharable across platforms. The same information we enter for our website should, with the push of a button, be able to populate the online listings we use, the art fair applications we send, the online e-commerce sites we participate in, etc. etc. etc. The online effort that manages to invent/enforce that standard will be the one I'm willing to pay for.

Having said all that, I'm very happy to note that Moving Image has teamed up with what I consider the most responsive (especially in terms of the trends I've noted above) new online platform devoted to partnering with the gallery world to bring contemporary art to a wider audience.

Gallerist.com is still in their beta mode, but I can't tell you how impressed I have been with their team. I've had a good look at their interface, discussed what I need with their development team (who have the most "can do" attitude I've ever seen), and never once suspected that they were in over their heads (as I have frequently with other initiatives) or were not listening to my feedback. Their promises are delivered on in astonishingly respectful time-frames, and they are perceptive in a way that saves me time. In short, they're a dream.

Gallerist will be launching a unique website to promote the artists exhibiting at Moving Image on March 4th. It has innovations in it that I'm almost giddy about, and to be perfectly frank, it represents in my opinion perhaps the best hope yet for an online collaboration that will work well for galleries.

Here's a visualization for the home page.


Like other online joint efforts with fairs, ours will provide viewing opportunities before, during, and after Moving Image, expanding its reach (which, after all the hard work that goes into it, seems only right to me :-). Unlike some other joint efforts with fairs, though, there's been no confusing contracts to sign or what looks like long-term commitments, making Gallerist a site willing to prove itself first, which further builds my confidence in them.

I'll be back to announce the URL on the 4th. Please check it out...and be frank in your assessment (they can handle it).

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5 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

ha, clicking on the gallerist.com link epitomizes the iceberg reception you elude to. "by invitation only..."

2/23/2012 11:50:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

That's because, as noted above, it's still in its beta mode. It will be free and open to public when we launch on March 4th. Stay tuned.

2/23/2012 11:55:00 AM  
Blogger Julie Takacs said...

I look forward to examining the format. The VIP fair was fascinating to me, because I work a lot and rarely have time for trips to NYC for art browsing. I am not a collector (yet) but I am very thankful for the chance to see things online. I don't know if I could empty my wallet on anything without a personal viewing, but with my current financial state, it's a mute point!
The subdued interface you show here for Moving Image looks great. Good luck with this Ed!

2/24/2012 10:26:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm glad the 'insider' art world is finally talking about these issues. I've worked for a few online art networks/services since 2006 -- back in the day few 'insiders' were interested. Most scoffed at the idea of art marketing online... and even more at the idea of eCommerce meshing with art sales. Now some of those same early critics are acting as if they are experts on the topic. You've always been ahead of the pack Ed... but, for example, I can't say the same for some of the other 'voices' in that Taking AIM rag.

2/27/2012 08:50:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll add that Shane Ferro shows just how behind the times the big art world is with the Internet. There are art websites / online services that have been extremely profitable. Artwanted and deviantART just to name two. Funny how the guy he spoke with takes a jab at sites like that. They did it first. Artists lead the charge.

2/27/2012 08:58:00 PM  

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